How do minorities come to adopt or reject national identities?

How do minorities come to adopt or reject national identities?

The question ‘An Englishness Open To All?’ is the topic of a timely seminar being held today (31st March) by The Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester. Alongside contributions from leading experts, Professor Anthony Heath delivered a presentation entitled How do minorities come to adopt or reject national identities? His presentation slides can be downloaded here.


In this blog post we explore how minority young people come to adopt or reject national identities, and how this varies across Europe. We draw on data from the CILS4EU project, which surveyed 14-year-olds from majority and minority groups living in England, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden in 2011.


We first explore how the strength of national belonging (how strongly a person reports feeling that they belong to the country they live in) and ethnic belonging (how strongly a person identifies with an ethnic identity in addition to their national identity) vary between countries with different policy regimes.


We explore two distinct hypotheses that predict how national and ethnic belonging might vary between countries. Our first hypothesis is that countries such as Germany, which follow assimilationist regimes, will promote the adoption of national identities. In contrast, countries like England and Sweden, which have multiculturalist policy regimes, will encourage people to retain ethnic identities.


Figure 1: Strength of national belonging among minority young people

Looking at Figure 1, levels of national belonging are extremely consistent across the four countries. This challenges the expectation that national identification among young minorities is greater in assimilationist countries like Germany. Likewise, Figure 2 shows that ethnic identities are not distinctly stronger in the multicultural countries of England and Sweden. We do however see some polarization of ethnic identities in Sweden: of those young people identifying with another group, higher proportions choose very strong or weak identities rather than moderate ones, collectively suggesting that young minorities in Sweden held more divisive identities than those living elsewhere in Europe. Overall, however, the expectation that assimilationist regimes strengthen national identities while multiculturalism weakens national identities is not borne out.


Figure 2: Strength of ethnic belonging among minority young people

The second hypothesis is that national identity will vary between countries holding civic or ethnic conceptions of nationality. While countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands – which have civic conceptions of their nations – will promote national identification, countries like England and Germany – which hold more ethnic conceptions of their nations – will discourage national identification. Again, we find no evidence that national identity varies between countries with civic and ethnic conceptions of nationality (Figure 1). These similarities between countries are perhaps surprising in light of large differences between countries in immigrants’ experiences of discrimination.


Figure 3: Feelings of very strong national belonging among minority young people, by religion

So far, therefore, we see no clear evidence that national and ethnic identities vary between European countries with different policy regimes. Looking in more detail, however, we do find some evidence that the identities of minority young people are not equal across our four countries. Figure 3 shows that patterns of national belonging in young people from different religions vary considerably across Europe. Over one-quarter of young Muslims living in England reported very strong national belonging, a considerably higher proportion than elsewhere that is perhaps surprising given the employment penalties faced by British Muslims. This difference cannot, be ascribed to differences in the relative size of Muslim population: in 2010, Muslims comprised 4.8 of the population of England and Wales, a smaller proportion than the Netherlands (6.0 per cent) and Germany (5.8 per cent), and similar to that in Sweden (4.6 per cent). Of course, the Muslim group is comprised differently across the four countries: Muslims in England are largely from Pakistan and Bangladesh, in Germany they are predominantly Turkish, while Muslims in the Netherlands are generally from Turkey and Morocco and Muslims in Sweden are mainly from Iraq. Differences in national belonging may therefore reflect characteristics of the countries of origin and migration histories, as well as minorities’ experiences – including those of social integration and discrimination in the receiving countries.


Figure 4: Feelings of very strong national belonging among minority young people, by generation

Finally, comparing national identity between different generations in these countries suggests that the historical context is influential. National belonging rises progressively between generations in both England and Germany, suggesting that young minorities are becoming more socially integrated in these countries. These gains are far greater in England, which might reflect growing social integration made possible by large gains in English language fluency in the second generation. In contrast, national belonging is lower in the second generation in the Netherlands and Sweden, so longer-term assimilation may be limited in these countries. Levels of national belonging among children of transnational and mixed marriages also vary between countries, potentially indicating that young minorities’ visibility as distinct from the majority is less important in determining national belonging in the Netherlands than Germany and Sweden.


To summarise, the similarities in national belonging between countries are far more striking than the differences. We see no support for view that multiculturalism reduces minorities’ levels of national identification, and little evidence that civic conceptions of the nation promote national belonging. Overall, England performs well, providing encouraging evidence that multiculturalism does not threaten British values.


Young people from minority backgrounds are however in transition. Dual identities are more common than very strong single (either national or ethnic) identities. Encouragingly, young people hold more positive attitudes to immigration, suggesting that we can expect improvements in future. We do still face major challenges in promoting greater feelings of national identification, however. Promoting social integration – the approach made in the Casey Review – will not be sufficient on its own. Instead it is also vital to promote a warmer welcome and eliminate discrimination.

Post by Elisabeth Garratt, 31st March 2017.